Jackson ‘star that stirs drink' for RamsFor general manager Billy Devaney, the similarity between a certain baseball Hall of Fame outfielder and the St. Louis Rams' star running back goes considerably beyond just their shared surname.
"I like to say he is our Reggie Jackson," Devaney told The Sports Xchange in speaking of St. Louis tailback Steven Jackson. "He's the straw that stirs our drink. Even with the great, young quarterback (second-year veteran Sam Bradford), he is our (offensive) centerpiece. Steven is so vital to what we do."
Although Steven Jackson isn't nearly as flamboyant as Reggie Jackson, or as volatile at times in the clubhouse or as consistent a burr under the saddles of reporters, the analogy is understandable. Except for these two significant things: Reggie Jackson was "Mr. October," and Steven Jackson has actually delivered big plays for the Rams in all four months of the regular season, having rushed for 140 or more yards at least one outing each in September, October, November and December, since he became a full-time starter in 2005.
Sadly, unlike Reggie Jackson, who was a five-time World Series champion, Steven Jackson has yet to ever appear as a starter in a playoff game, let alone participate in a Super Bowl.
That is, of course, a resume void that the Rams hope to address in coming years. To do so, however, St. Louis might have to finally locate a reliable No. 2 runner who can shoulder some of Jackson's estimable workload.
And Devaney is acutely aware of that.
"Let's just say we're looking to develop players and depth at every position ... and running back is certainly one of them," Devaney said. "We're still a work in progress. But so far, at that position, we've done a pretty lousy job of it."
Over much of the past six seasons, which corresponds to his tenure as a starter, Jackson hasn't been just an Everyman for the Rams; he's been more like an Only Man on offense. That changed dramatically last season, with the emergence of Bradford, the top overall selection in the 2010 draft. But even with Bradford, the league's offensive rookie of the year and a guy who completed 60 percent of his attempts while throwing for over 3,500 yards, Jackson still logged 35.7 percent of the St. Louis offensive "touches."
That was slightly ahead of Jackson's impressive aggregate quota, 32.9 percent, for the previous five years.
Even with Bradford aboard, along with an improved receiving corps (although the Rams arguably still require a deep threat), Jackson may be as indispensible to the St. Louis offense as nearly any player in the league.
In August 2008, the Rams signed Jackson to a six-year, $44.8 million contract, and they've been getting their money's worth from the lucrative deal.
Since 2005, Jackson has logged more than three-quarters of the Rams' rushes (77.1 percent to be exact), excluding non-running backs and quarterbacks. Not since '08 has another St. Louis back registered more than 34 carries in a season.
It was 2007 when a St. Louis back other than Jackson rushed for 300 yards. In Jackson's six seasons as the starter, the Rams have had another back carry 50 times or more just thrice. The team has also had another back post more than 250 yards only three times.
Jackson has scored all but four of the Rams' 47 rushing touchdowns by backs since 2005. He has accounted for nearly one-third, 50 of 159, of the team's total offensive touchdowns in that period. Even counting non-backs, no St. Louis player has rushed for more than two touchdowns since Jackson moved into the starting lineup.
In a league in which the multiple-tailback model has flourished of late, Jackson has pretty much defined the term "workhorse." And while Devaney emphasized that Jackson has displayed no discernable talent erosion despite being about only six weeks shy of his 28th birthday, and has diligently worked on conditioning and shape throughout his career, the Rams' general manager acknowledged the seven-year veteran could use some assistance.
Jackson has never publicly chafed about his workload, but in his six seasons as a starter, he has had 375 or more "touches" three times, and he has averaged 24.1 "touches" per start. Reducing those numbers, Devaney conceded, will keep him fresh and could prolong Jackson's career.
The Rams have missed out on a few veterans in free agency the past several years. They didn't take a back in this year's draft, although they targeted a few in the third round and later, because, Devaney noted, they steadfastly followed their board and weren't given to the temptation to "reach" for a runner.
Since selecting Jackson with the 24th overall pick in 2004, the Rams have taken only three runners, and one of those, Madison Hedgecock, a seventh-rounder in 2007, was a fullback. Another, Brian Leonard, a second-round choice in 2007, was more a tailback-fullback combination player. After two seasons, the former Rutgers star was traded to Cincinnati in 2009. The third was a seventh-round pick.
There are four other tailbacks currently on the roster, including one practice squad and one injured reserve player, but the quartet totals just one regular-season start in 80 games, 115 carries, and 471 yards. None of the four has ever registered more than 34 carries or 152 yards in a season. Second-year veteran Keith Toston, an undrafted free agent who carried 19 times for 54 yards as a rookie during 2010, did flash some promise, Devaney said.
There have been unsubstantiated rumors linking the Rams to some potential free agent backs (Darren Sproles, Cadillac Williams) or players who might be available in trades (Steve Slaton), but the lockout rules preclude Devaney from addressing any such veteran possibilities.
Clearly, the addition of Bradford, and the continued development of the receivers, along with the anticipated return of deep threat Donnie Avery, who missed all of last season, and a the design of new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels should help. But it's difficult to win in the NFL anymore without a second, viable back.
In each of the past two seasons, only one of the 12 playoff teams did not have a second back with 50 carries or 240 or more yards. In Jackson's six years as a starter, just six of 72 postseason qualifiers did not have such a complementary back. There were never more than two teams in that stretch without solid No. 2 backs.
Of course, saying a team is going to address a lopsided workload at tailback and doing it, are two different things. When the New York Jets, for instance, selected LaMont Jordan in the 2001 draft, then-coach Herm Edwards insisted the addition was made in large part to take some carries from Curtis Martin's huge quota. Every year, it seemed, Edwards made the same promise, and every season the time-sharing plan fizzled.
In the four years they shared on the New York roster, Martin averaged 322.0 carries and Jordan averaged 65.6.
Still, Devaney seems pretty intent on having a No. 2 tailback, whether developing him internally or going outside the organization, who averages 6-8 "touches" per game in 2011.
"Obviously, it's become a two-back league, and we know that," Devaney said. "As good as Steven has been, sure, we'd like to have someone who could take some of the (workload) off him."
And perhaps allow Jackson a chance to contend for "Mr. January" honors at some point in his career.
Remembering JHJBelated condolences to the family of Hall of Fame running back John Henry Johnson. In most appreciation pieces, JHJ was principally recalled as a member of the famed "Million Dollar Backfield" in San Francisco, where he became a legend during his first three NFL seasons.
But, showing our age here, we remember him for the six seasons (1960-65) he spent with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and how he was the primary excuse for plunking down $1 on "Kids Day" at Forbes Field or Pitt Stadium to see Johnson run, particularly his battles with the great Jim Brown. The two faced each other nine times, and Johnson out-gained Brown on four of those occasions.
The late Buddy Parker, then the coach of the Steelers, once described Johnson as "a man who ran mad" and whom he "didn't want to see in an alley." That was pretty much JHJ. But recall this: Johnson played longer for Pittsburgh than for any of the other three franchises that employed him, and the 4,381 yards he gained for the Steelers was roughly four times more than he gained for anyone else.
Pryor commitmentAlthough there seems to be considerable doubt about where former Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor will continue his football career, it appears he will be able to rely on the advice of some professional counselors.
No deal for representation had yet been struck by Friday morning, but The Sports Xchange has confirmed that at least one agent has spoken directly to Pryor since the player announced he will bypass his final season of eligibility and leave the Buckeyes. Furthermore, The Sports Xchange has learned that Pryor has reached out, via text messages, to at least two other prominent agents, both of whom are still deciding whether or not they want to become involved with him. At least one more well-known agent has texted or left messages for Pryor, seeking an audience with him.
The word in the agent community is that Pryor could settle on representation within a week or two, and that current attorney Larry James will play only a small role in the decision.
The signs remain that Pryor will strongly consider petitioning the NFL for the supplemental draft. James said this week that Pryor has ruled out the CFL, and the going contract rate in the UFL is $40,000-$50,000, considerably less than the rookie minimum in the NFL. In fact, despite a report that "the money will be about the same" if Pryor opted for the CFL or UFL, that's hardly the case. And it's doubtless any NFL franchise would forfeit its corresponding choice in the 2011 draft unless it planned to retain Pryor as a developmental project.
Even practice squad money in the NFL would be more than the UFL is paying. Some observers disagree, but the consensus seems to be that Pryor – even though he has more experience than Cam Newton, similar size and athleticism, and possesses some of the same skills-set – would be a fourth- or fifth-round choice in a supplemental draft.
There has not, by the way, been a quarterback chosen in the supplemental draft since 1992, when the New York Giants tabbed Dave Brown in the first round. In fact, the past five quarterbacks chosen – Brown, Steve Walsh (1989), Timm Rosenbach ('89), Bernie Kosar ('85), and Dave Wilson ('81) – were all first-rounders.
Follow the leaderTo this point, speculation about the five suspended OSU players has primarily focused on Pryor, and that's understandable, given his position and his prominence and name value. But a source close to the Buckeyes program said on Thursday night he anticipated "at least one more" of the suspended players to leave school for the pros. The four other players are: offensive tackle Mike Adams, tailback Dan Herron, wide receiver DeVier Posey, and defensive end Solomon Thomas. Of the group, Adams, who probably needs a little more size but projects to the prized left tackle spot, seems to be the highest regarded in discussions with NFL talent evaluators.
"Plax" marketAs indicated by The Sports Xchange in a column earlier this week, never underestimate agent Drew Rosenhaus and his ability to create a market for his clients, a lesson that has been learned in the past by teams. But there is growing suspicion that Rosenhaus won't have many more than 3-4 suitors serious about signing free agent wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who was released Monday from jail after serving a 20-month sentence.
Teams are concerned by Burress' age (34 next month), his inactivity (it is likely to be 33 months between games), and by his reputation for never having been the hardest worker earlier in his career. The lockout isn't likely to work in Burress' favor, either, because teams may be forced to make quick decisions on players in a compressed environment.
Said one team official: "It's the ultimate 'buyer beware' scenario. I only hope the guy is starting his conditioning work right away, because when this (lockout) ends, it's going to be bang-bang on signings."
To reiterate some points made earlier this week about the Philadelphia Eagles, popularly rumored as a potential landing spot for Burress: Although third-year veteran receiver Jeremy Maclin is only 6-feet tall, he still scored seven of his 10 touchdowns in the red zone"in 2010. Some Eagles coaches this week, who said they have not had serious discussions yet about Burress, noted that Maclin is a far better red zone receiver than people think.
They also lauded the potential of second-year wideout Riley Cooper, who is 6-5, and who they feel can be a red -one factor. And they seized a theme espoused by The Sports Xchange, that quarterback Michael Vick, who rushed for nine touchdowns in the red zone last season, provides them an X-factor inside the 20-yard line.
Politically correctIn contrast to last spring, when he skipped minicamps and OTA sessions, Tennessee tailback Chris Johnson joined his Titans teammates for their voluntary workouts this week, and adopted a diplomatic approach to his desire for a new contract. The NFL's leading rusher over the past three seasons (4,598 yards), and one of only six men in league history to run for 2,000 yards in a campaign, the 2008 first-rounder suggested he is "not worried" about his contract status.
There is no denying the three-year veteran has displayed considerably more maturity this offseason than he did last year. There is also no doubt, league sources emphasized to The Sports Xchange this week, that Johnson will not report to the Titans for camp – assuming, of course, there eventually is a camp – until he receives a lucrative, long-term contract. And not the band-aid approach the Titans took last year, when they advanced him most of the escalator money he had earned as part of his original five-year, $12 million contract.
That short-term fix bumped Johnson's base salary from $550,000 to about $2 million. But under the contract he signed in '08, he's still on the books for base salaries of $800,000 in 2011 and $900,000 in 2012. Johnson is playing nice for now, saying all the right things, doing what he needs to do to stay in shape and in touch with his teammates. But unless there's more than just a token bookkeeping maneuver to address is contract grievances in 2011, things could get pretty dicey between the Titans and the man some consider the NFL's best back.
Britt brutalTo suggest that Tennessee officials, including first-year coach Mike Munchak, are upset with third-year wide receiver Kenny Britt after the former first-round pick's latest arrest on Wednesday would be understatement.
Said one Titans' official, who said he could not speak for attribution: "We're beyond pissed off with the situation. There will be consequences."
Arrested for the sixth time since joining the Titans in the 2009 draft – this time for alleged evidence tampering, obstruction of a government function and resisting arrest, after he is said to have smashed a cigar containing marijuana when he was stopped for a traffic violation – Britt is expected to face team-issued punishment even before commissioner Roger Goodell take action, the Titans official said.
Noted the team official of Britt, who was arrested in his hometown of Hoboken, N.J.: "It's the same old story. He can't pull himself away from his buddies. That's not to (absolve) him of any blame, but he's got to get away from some people."
Just last week, in fact, Britt's father noted the same thing, saying he hoped his son would get away from New Jersey and go train with his Tennessee teammates for a while. When the lockout ends, the Titans are likely to strong suggest, perhaps even demand, that Britt undergo some sort of counseling. They might even take a page from the Atlanta Falcons' handling of wide receiver Roddy White a few years ago. As noted in this space last week, the Falcons declined to sign White to a new deal until he distanced himself from certain friends who were living at his house.
Once White complied to the satisfaction of Atlanta officials in 2009, the club rewarded him with a new six-year, $50 million contract. Given that Britt is under contract for three more seasons, the Titans can't do exactly the same thing, but there might be some financial moves they consider.
One-armed banditDespite gaining 1,241 yards, the third most of his seven-year NFL tenure, the aforementioned Steven Jackson averaged a career-low 3.76 yards per carry in 2010. And Devaney offered some insight into a mark that was nearly six-tenths of a yard less than Jackson's average for his first six seasons. Devaney reminded that Jackson played more than half the season with a broken left ring finger, and two surgical pins in the digit.
"He couldn't stiff-arm anybody, which is a big part of his game ... and he couldn't even switch the ball from one hand to the other," Devaney told The Sports Xchange. "He was basically playing one-handed."
The break, which occurred in the seventh game of the season, was hardly a secret. The extent to which the injury impacted Jackson, though, may have been a bit underplayed. One NFC West linebacker allowed, however, that opponents were "well aware" of Jackson's handicap. In the first seven games of the season, Jackson averaged 4.14 yards per carry and 88.1 yards per game. In the final nine games, playing with the broken finger, those fell to 3.44 yards and 69.3 yards, respectively.
Getting readyThere have been quite a few stories recently about how teams are better prepared for the presumptive start to signing undrafted free agents this year, because scouts have now had considerable time to study the prospects, rather than be subjected to the feeding frenzy that typically ensues when the draft concludes.
Here's another twist: Several player agents have told The Sports Xchange in recent days that they have used the "down time" during the lockout to prepare for contract negotiations for their draft prospects by more closely scrutinizing team trends, spending and signing policies, and the habits of the individuals with whom they will be bargaining.
There will be a cluster-fudge to get drafted players under contract once the lockout ends, and the preparatory work taking place now might actually speed the process a bit. Of course, if a rookie wage scale is part of a new CBA, and takes effect immediately, much of the current work being done could be rendered extraneous. Still, it's somewhat heartening to see that some agents are making productive use of this slow time.
Good guysThe arrests and run-ins with the law that have taken place during the lockout aside, there have been some terrific stories of public service on the part of NFL players and coaches. One that hasn't garnered much publicity, and actually has been delayed a bit, is the plan by Pittsburgh stars Hines Ward and James Harrison to purchase a home in the Stanton Heights section of the city, and transform it into a youth center.
The home has particular meaning in Pittsburgh, because it's the site at which three Pittsburgh policemen were killed in April 2009 while responding to an alleged domestic disturbance call. The shooting deaths of the three officers – Paul Sciullo III, Stephen Mayhle, and Eric Kelly – sent shock waves reverberating through the city. Recently, a memorial was dedicated to the three in my old Bloomfield neighborhood, which was once home to Sciullo, and residents have had a difficult time getting over the incident.
The purchase of the home, by Harrison and Ward, will at least help heal some wounds. Unfortunately, the sale of the home has been delayed by some legal maneuvering by the defense team representing alleged gunman Richard Poplawski. But the two Steelers standouts are to be lauded for their efforts to turn a place of miserable memories into something constructive.
PuntsTeammates with whom he has practiced informally have been impressed by the work ethic, and obviously the physical potential, of Kansas City first-round wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin. The former Pitt standout had the reputation of being a bit of a diva before the draft, but veteran players haven't evidenced any of that with Baldwin so far. ... There's always been a lot written about how Indianapolis seems to lose a linebacker in free agency almost every year. Less attention has been paid to the linebacker exodus in Atlanta, but if Stephen Nicholas exits the Falcons as an unrestricted free agent (think Detroit), it will leave the team will none of the veteran linebackers who were with the club in 2007, the year before coach Mike Smith arrived. Keith Brooking (2009), Michael Boley (2009), and Demorrio Williams (2008) all departed via free agency. Nicholas could be the next to depart, and Mike Peterson is also an unrestricted free agent, although the Falcons could re-sign him. ... There have been at least two agent switches this week by players chosen in the draft only seven weeks ago. Cleveland wide receiver Greg Little, a second-round pick, has gone to Rosenhaus after initially being represented by Octagon. And Buffalo third-round linebacker Kelvin Sheppard apparently has left SportsTrust Advisors, the firm recently created by the merger of veteran agents Pat Dye Jr. and Jimmy Sexton, to sign with a still-unidentified group. ... Devaney is the latest general manager or personnel director to suggest to The Sports Xchange that his department , with the lockout continuing, is deep into work on the 2012 draft. ... Although there's been plenty of chatter of late about the Chicago Bears adding a proven wide receiver, a team source insisted this week that there is no veteran pass-catcher "on the radar" right now. ... A year or two ago, critics of Jeff Backus were lobbying for the Detroit Lions to dump the veteran left tackle. Now, with Backus having played well in 2010 and a dearth of potential replacements, the Lions' brass has made signing him to a contract extension a priority when the lockout ends. Backus, who will be 34 in September, is entering the final season of the six-year, $40 million deal he signed in 2006. ... A couple personnel men whose teams could upgrade at linebacker in free agency this week noted the participation of Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis in drills with his teammates. The six-year veteran has blown out his ACL each of the past two seasons, and appeared in just seven games in that period, but apparently remains of interest to a few clubs. ... Speaking of the Panthers, a few veteran players noted to The Sports Xchange after workouts this week that they are more impressed with Cam Newton's diligence and work ethic than with his accuracy and mechanics.
The last word"I don't think I'll ever get football 100 percent out of my system. I don't think that will ever happen. Maybe it will. I know I'm going to be a little bit rusty, and I'll be a little bit behind. (But) I feel I can go in and help the team win. ... Since leaving Nebraska, it's been a less-than-stellar professional career, hopping from team to team, league to league, having injuries and uncertainty." – Former Nebraska quarterback and 2001 Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch, upon signing with the Omaha Nighthawks of the UFL, the fourth different professional league in which he has played
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008